People my age are at the top of their professional game. Or at least, they’re riding the right wave in that direction. Mid-thirties is old enough to have put in our time, we no longer worry about the experience part of our resumes. We’re worried about our expertise. We want to be excellent at something, maybe even world class. We want to create a name for ourselves, to be recruitable. We want to have a perspective that is sought after.
There’s an audience for conversations about world class performers. Tim Ferriss interviews them on The Tim Ferriss Show which is often the #1 business podcast on Apple Podcasts. His books also capture the routines and philosophies of people who are best in their field: everything from investing to alpine skiing. His audience wants to answer the question, “how can I optimize my performance in order to live the life I want to live?” If you listen to Tim Ferriss long enough, you’ll learn that the answer to that question lies somewhere between radical discipline and reframing our approach to work.
I started listening to experts in business and leadership in my early 30s. I read books (skimmed), attended seminars, downloaded podcasts, and even convinced my boss to hire a leadership coach for me because I feared mediocrity more than exhaustion. Each work day felt like an attempt at my black belt and these experts were only reminding me of my unrealized potential. I was working for the State of Colorado Refugee Services Program in a grant officer position and then an Instructional Dean at a well-known college. And yet, I had a daily conversation with mediocrity. I wouldn’t be the professional the experts from my podcasts admired until I was I recruited by the State Department or the United Nations. Or if Tim Ferriss called to set up an interview.
As it turns out, the leadership coach I ended up with was Dan Reed. In addition to maximizing my performance, Dan’s agenda included widening my perspective of what it means to be a professional. He began by introducing me to bestselling author, Steven Pressfield.
“The amateur allows his worth and identity to be defined by others. The amateur craves third-party validation. The amateur is tyrannized by his imagined conception of what is expected of him. He is imprisoned by what he believes he ought to think, how he ought to look, what he ought to do, and who he ought to be.”
― Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro
Steven Pressfield made an essential distinction for me. He articulated the difference between an amateur and a professional. It is the difference between my obsession with mediocrity and my ability to get up in the morning and submit to the work at hand, regardless of the awards I get for it.
Regardless of the calls I get because of it.
Regardless of who notices.
I submit to the work and dismiss the thought that I’m not enough unless I’m remarkable.
That’s not to say that we don’t continue to pursue excellence. Pressfield would simply say that we shouldn’t live and die by it. In Turning Pro, he presents a list of qualities that define a professional:
“…The professional does not show off.
The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique...
The professional does not identify with his or her instrument...
The professional self-validates.”
And as a result of focusing on the right things: humility, mastery, self-validation; his list ends with this:
“The professional is recognized by other professionals.”
Recognition is the result, not the aim. I admit that my primary professional aim still wanders into the field of awards and invitations. I’ve improved since my 20’s when I had a boyfriend who told me we probably weren’t compatible because I wanted to be famous and he wanted to be a farmer in Haiti.
I’m still not famous, but happiness is even better than fame, some say. And yet, even when I’m happy, I catch myself wondering if I should be working harder. It doesn’t feel right to be happy unless I’ve labored over the work. I’ve spent so long believing that the work only has value unless it was tedious. As if the only valuable labor in this world is that which was done by hand, with dull tools, under great duress.
I’m looking forward to arriving at the stage in my life where I can be the kind of professional that “self-validates” as Pressfield says. Where I believe in both my mind and soul that my work is contributing to something that would have happened with or without my help. In this way, I think that the mark of a professional is humility before its anything else. Humility that says, “I’m both necessary and not the point.”